Bryce Harper, a National League MVP at 23, is a free agent at 26, peddling his services in an industry that’s grown to nearly $11 billion in annual revenues. His combination of skills, age and marketing cachet make him an excellent fit for any major league franchise.
Including the Atlanta Braves.
Harper rejected a 10-year, $300 million contract offer from the Washington Nationals in September, and is a good bet to set a new standard for the most lucrative contract in North American sports history.
It may take weeks for that process to play out. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports will examine why every team could use Harper’s services – some more than others, certainly some better-equipped to procure them.
A case for Harper and the Braves joining forces:
On the field
In an era of “windows” and franchises closely monitoring their “win curves,” it’s refreshing when a team knocks down the door and tells the front office, “We’re ready.”
That was the Braves in 2018, shrugging off the service-time suppression of Ronald Acuña Jr. to win 90 games and the National League East over Harper’s Nationals.
Now, they have a rare mix of established but still viable veterans and emerging stars. And dropping Harper into a lineup bracketed by Rookie of the Year Acuña and three-time All-Star Freddie Freeman (he of the .875 lifetime OPS) is, well, it’s what you want.
The vacancy is natural: Right fielder Nick Markakis is a free agent. Harper could stroll right into SunTrust Park and set up shop for the next decade-plus, flanked for the next two seasons by Ender Inciarte in center field and across the way from left fielder Acuña for the next six.
Freeman, still just 29, also is signed through the next two seasons. The middle-infield combo of Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies are under control for four and five more seasons, respectively.
In short: The Braves would have a devastating, well-balanced and athletic core for the next two seasons, and a sustainable one far beyond that.
Off the field
Harper has been the game’s most consistently recognizable face and theoretically could boost his marketing cachet in places like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.
Don’t sleep on the ATL, however.
Already a top-10 market, Atlanta is on pace to surpass Philadelphia in population by 2022, moving to eighth overall in the USA. It added 90,000 new residents in 2017, its growth trailing only the Dallas and Houston markets. And that growth skews young, diverse and professional.
Clearly, there are worse destinations to expand your brand.
The Braves fan base also is something of a sleeping giant: There’s still plenty of ‘80s and ‘90s kids raised on TBS broadcasts scattered about the country, and the club’s social media metrics rank highly. While teams often suffer an attendance dropoff in the second year of a ballpark, the Braves enjoyed a 2% bump (cracking 2.5 million) in 2018 as they went from contenders to division champions.
Why they could pull it off
With a franchise value approaching $2 billion and annual revenues of $335 million, according to Forbes, the Braves certainly have money. Complicating that cash flow is the fact that they’re one of the few corporate-owned teams in this era, as Liberty Media controls the purse strings.
Another downside: A below-market TV contract that runs through 2027, although a 2013 re-working of the deal should lead to more than $500 million in revenue flowing toward the ballclub, Liberty said in 2014.
With that in mind, securing Harper’s services – for, say, 12 years and $420 million – might be a wise long-term investment.
While industry observers ponder the concept of a “TV rights bubble,” Major League Baseball’s contract extension with Fox that keeps its jewel events on television through 2028 shows the TV sports model is shifting but won’t shatter anytime soon.
Harper will be 35 by the time the Braves’ local rights hit the market again, but he’d still be under contract and presumably would have added significant relevance and reach to the Braves’ brand. That wouldn’t hurt come time to negotiate a new TV deal.
Will it happen?
Probably not. Lavishing that much money on one player would be a relatively rash departure from the Braves’ disciplined rebuild. While there are significant arms among their top prospects, pitching remains the greater short-term need over a big bat.
Should they prefer a bigger-picture approach, however, Harper makes a lot of sense – for both parties.
Follow Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques